5th April – North Coast Cliffhanger

I was listening to the radio on the way to the gliding club and that old Baz Luhrmann song was playing, you know the one, dishing out life advice by the bucket load and advocating the wearing of sunscreen. Anyway there is a line of that song which goes, “Do one thing everyday that scares you”. That was rather apt! Today I was definitely heading into that territory and I could feel the butterflies beginning to flap their wings. A tornado was probably brewing somewhere.
In the build up to today, at least a couple of years in the fermenting, we had been waiting for a chance to fly the cliffs on the North coast of Devon. After having rediscovered the fun we could have on the south coast cliffs we immediately wondered about repeating the exercise on the other side of the county. Ideally the wind would need to be close to due north and sufficiently strong enough to guarantee that the cliffs would work when we arrived. The closest bit that was likely to work is the hill/ridge at Minehead, which is 40km from North Hill, so it would mean a fairly long aerotow into the headwind, climbing to a height which would then allow a final glide onto the ridge, so a good cloud base or at least scattered cloud conditions were added to the growing list of prerequisites. Oh and not to mention, I needed to be off work, the tug serviceable and the club open for gliding. The odds, you can see, have been stacked against us.
Further preparation had been spent by pouring over Google Earth, measuring distances, angles, field sizes and figuring out where suitable turn-points might be. A trip by car, to go and look at the terrain, resulted in the discovery of a nice field in the Porlock valley which we could probably land in and possibly even get away with using the glider again. The best out-landing options, however, were identified as the bigger fields near Butlins at Minehead. Farther west, the fields get smaller and seem to be plastered to the sides of steep valleys, so getting out of trouble down that end becomes a much more interesting prospect. Unlike the south coast, apart from at Porlock, there is no beach to speak of on the 50km of coast from Minehead and Mortehoe Point, mostly sheer cliffs dropping straight into the rocky sea. Hence the overwhelming sense that the final glide off tow onto the ridge at Minehead might well be taken literally.
If all went well then getting back was optimistcally considered as needing to bump up against the Cardiff airspace which would put us on glide for home, more realistically though the plan was to climb as high as possible on the taller cliffs west of Porlock before aiming for the big fields to the west of the Quantocks, just to shorten the retrieve. If we couldn’t get high enough then it would be the fields at Minehead and home by midnight.
The run of strong northeasterly winds that had plagued the first few days of April were forecast to back a little to about 030° on Friday. That would work..wouldn’t it? It’s obliged to work! Oh bollocks, Friday! not a club flying day.  It’s never simple, is it? But undeterred, questions were asked and Peter Field stepped into the breach, offering to fly the tug. Liam was going to be on site waiting for the gang he was joining on the club trip to Portmoak and Adrian is never far away. So plans were set in motion on Wednesday and confirmed late Thursday evening, with JB having to do some major social calendar juggling so he wouldn’t miss out in the fun. Pete Startup was well and truely scuppered though having to attend his outlaw’s diamond wedding anniversary, there’s no getting out of that one! Fortunately the viz wasn’t quite good enough for him to endure the sight of us on the cliffs from across the sea in South Wales. The pursuit of epicness has scant regard for diary engagements it seems.
So to Friday and those feelings of apprehension on the drive to the club. I’m probably going to land-out, will the field be OK, will 030° make the ridge work, what if it doesn’t, will I be high enough to turn back to the fields. Going on these ridge running type tasks, especially on ridges I haven’t flown before, is very different to normal thermal cross country flying. Setting off on a XC in thermal I almost have the feeling that I will definitely get back and the chance of a field landing is relatively low, (maybe I’m not pushing hard enough!) That’s not exactly true, I think it’s more of the case that on a thermal XC I’m not worried about landing in a field because you can usually see it coming and can prepare but low down on a ridge things can change quite quickly and the lack of height really ups the work load when the lift is gone and a field is needed. It’s a very similar feeling to the one you got when you set off on your first silver distance attempt and you finally get out of gliding range of your club.  Butterflies and humming birds! Mixed in with these though were also feelings of excitement and expectation, I’m going adventure flying, I will be pushing my boundaries on a brand new playground and the views and footage will hopefully be awesome. Butterfly central!
The wind was howling. A steady 22kts according to the club weather station with gusts of up to 30kts. The launch was going to be hairy! Once the gliders were rigged, JB being the voice of reason in unison with Peter, deemed it too rough to launch so we retired to the club house to warm up and have a cup of tea in the hope that the wind would calm down a bit. (but not too much)
Fortunately the Gods were smiling on us and the wind obligingly reduced to a dull roar, so we readied the tug before Peter, fired up and gingerly taxied to the west end.
Liam, Adrian and Peter help get us airborne
Cameras rolling, I launched first in M5, flapping like a wild thing until we cleared the lee of the trees, where the ride settled down and we turned north. The sky by now was looking really good with some great cloud streets running up to the north east. Staying at about 2500′ QFE North Hill so we could duck under them, I saw that I had lost GPS input to my XC Soar program. I switched over to the Dell Steak’s internal GPS only to find that it calculated a wind reading of 055°. Bugger! With all the other “what ifs” wizzing round in my head, there was no way I was going for the cliffs with that wind direction. With about 20km to run to minehead I pulled off tow under a cloud street, wondering what to do next, and feeling really disappointed. The movement of the cloud shadows however was indicating a wind direction of about 030° so I tried re-configuring the GPS input in XC Soar and hey presto it reconnected and was up and running with all the air data from my new LXNav V7. Observations backed up by the gadgets = Wind 033° 25kts… cliffs here I come.
Going for Minehead – Butlins white tent in the distance
It was a long way to Minehead and my gadget was indicating arriving at about 800′ asl not much above the hill but there was one cloud that I could aim for on the way so moment of truth, time to go! The cloud delivered about 500′ so floating over Minehead was not as nerve wracking as I expected and I could relax and really suss out the safety fields from the air. They looked good and I relaxed a little more.
Minus 2 and Stick to the front
Given the forecast wind direction we had thought we should be able to go from Minehead to Combe Martin relatively easily. 5 beats of almost 40km giving a task distance of a whisker under 200km. There would be places where the line of the coast would create wind shadows and turbulence though so some restraint would have to be called for. Over Minehead Harbor and through the start gate, I just followed the line of the hill, quite cautiously as there was the jump across Porlock coming up and the other North Hill wasn’t exactly booming. Looking across the valley, the far cliffs were oriented more into the wind so I confidently continued on across the bay. Approaching the hills and as the lift increased it was time to select minus 2 and stick to the front. Yeeeha! From there it was just a blast, winding on the speed in the sweet spots, moving out to sea to avoid suspected turbulent air, it wasn’t long before I was turning Combe Martin, grinning like a dope fiend.
Turning Combe-Martin
Going back east there were 2 places where a little caution was called for. Firstly, there was a jump of about 3 km directly into wind from Lynton around the headland at Foreland Point Lighthouse. Once round the lighthouse though, the wind was directly on the slopes and lift guaranteed.You could even afford to be halfway down the side of the hill. The other was the 5km jump, also directly into wind, from Porlock Weir to Selworthy Beacon where enough height was needed so that you arrived at least as high as the hill before continuing round the corner on to Minehead.
Going for Foreland Point Lighthouse
There were loads of coast path walkers, quite a few seagulls and a lone buzzard who shared a couple of hours with JB and I, as we traversed the coast between Minehead and Combe-Martin. The views were absolutely amazing and the footage pretty good too!
On each successive beat, the wind calculated by my gadget was slowly veering towards the east and on the final run back to Porlock it was indicating 040°. So with discretion being the better part of valour we slowed up to start climbing. The lift over the coast took us up to about 1500′ above North Hill before we went to investigate the clouds in the lee of Selworthy Beacon. There were some “rough as old boots” rotor thermals which gave us another 1000′ before setting off for the next cloud which was a fair way down track. A good climb there put us over glide for home, but a sustained attack of 8 down had me back on a marginal glide. So we stopped again to make it comfortable, JB patiently waiting about 600′ above me!
What an epic day’s adventure! Made possible by the generosity of Peter, Liam and Adrian and also the moral support of JB. It’s far easier venturing into the unknown with your china’s than it is on your own and much more fun too! Oh and I think I might have even got a little sun-burnt!

Map of the flight

I submitted this article to Susan Newby, the edtitor of Sailplane and Gliding Magazine and then promptly ended up ditching, before this story had been published, so I was obliged to write the article which follows, of how I got it wrong. Both appear in the June – July 2013 edition of the magazine. Follow the link to see how to subscribe to the magazine.